White Water Rescue and Safety Course

Buoyed on top of the frothed water by my life jacket, I counterintuitively rolled myself into the white water swimming position (on one's back, feet downstream and high in the water) and eyed off the approaching trunk stretched across the river. Seconds later I collided with it, losing some air as the strainer hit my chest. My body immediately bent around the obstacle, with my feet and lower body getting sucked under and my upper body being pushed over by the strength of the rapid. Water rushing behind me so swiftly that it was forced up my back and over my head, I managed to get my hands on the strainer as I tried to push myself up and over it. I could vaguely hear the cries of my friends on the bank, encouraging me over the roar of the water past my ears, and I pushed harder against the strainer, trying to lever myself above it. Finally, with a shout of exultation I managed to drag my body up and over, and immediately swam to my friends on the bank so that I could watch the next person's practice with the PVC trunk.

It is such experiences that make white water rescue training so important. For although I've spent some time rafting in Tasmania and some kayaking in Western Australia, I'd never experienced a strainer first hand. And in the real world, the PVC tube is a tree, possibly with several others underneath; out there, if you cannot pull yourself over the top, there is no safely sliding out underneath.

Thus, alongside other Australian National University Mountaineering Club (ANUMC) members, I attended a two day course on the Murrumbidgee River in the Australian Capital Territory. Saturday morning was spent with a white board learning river hydrology ("Strainers are bad, avoid them"; "Holes are bad, try to avoid them"; "Surfing can be fun, but big stoppers are bad, avoid them too"; "Eddies are great!"), and practicing our throw bag technique. Then, my newly acquired $15 Anaconda wetsuit zipped on (the most I've ever paid to date, the previous two wetsuits being $8 and $5 respectively from the Hobart tip shop), we hit the water to learn about deck carries and the infamous PVC strainer.

That evening we took home some reading - incident reports from New Zealand, with descriptions of two fatal kayaking trips. The point was clear: kayaking is a dangerous sport, and even spectacularly talented kayakers can make mistakes or fall across bad luck. These reports also made recommendations as to what could have been improved, further getting across the message that kayaking is about preparation and decision making as well as paddling ability.

Sunday was spent learning about z-drags and pig rigs, which use systems of pulleys, carabiners and prusiks to create mechanical advantages in rescue situations. Beyond the 3:1 ratio of the z-drag my poor little Arts student mind started buckling under the strain, but we concluded the weekend more confident that we could safely prepare for and paddle a river.

This trip report was originally published as a blog post with photos, at http://wordsandwilds.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/white-water-safety-and-the...